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Federal Research Center 
"Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Siberian
Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences"

 Федеральный исследовательский центр «Красноярский научный центр Сибирского отделения Российской академии наук»

Federal Research Center 
"Krasnoyarsk Science Center of the Siberian
Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences"

Roman Moryachkov: "I want to figure out how everything works"

9 April 2021 г.

Роман Морячков: "Хочу разобраться, как все устроено"
It is believed that nowadays, in an era of increasingly narrow specialization, it is impossible to be an encyclopedic scientist. However, a young Krasnoyarsk scientist refutes this idle opinion. The journalist of the newspaper "Our Krasnoyarsk Region" asked Roman Moryachkov, a junior researcher at the L. V. Kirensky Institute of Physics SB RAS  about his interests ranging from biophysics to astrophysics.

- Could you tell us about structural biophysics, a scientific field you are engaged in. Why is it necessary to investigate the spatial structure of biomolecules, proteins and nucleic acids?

- In our body, all the life is based on the interaction of biomolecules: proteins, carbohydrates, fats, DNA, RNA, and so on. Any interaction of these biomolecules can be described as the interaction of their individual links or even individual atoms. And consequently, it depends on how these atoms are located on the surface of the molecules, what charge they have and what relief they form.

Structural biophysics is a science which studies the shape and structure of biomolecules. It allows us to understand how molecules are arranged, why this particular protein is responsible for a specific function in the body, which molecules it can interact with, and other useful information.

Knowing this can help us understand how the body functions at the molecular level, as well as to find out “the molecular causes” of various diseases.

There are many methods in this area, but not all of them provide the necessary information. For example, most proteins have been studied using X-ray structural analysis: a crystal is grown from a protein, and then, using X-rays, its structure is obtained up to the location of all atoms heavier than hydrogen.

But the biomolecules which I study, DNA aptamers, do not crystallize, as most proteins do. For them, other methods are used, which are not so accurate, but at least they make it possible to understand how these molecules look like.

For example, the main research method I use is small-angle X-ray scattering, or SAXS. It does not provide high resolution, but it allows us to study biomolecules directly in a liquid, under more natural conditions.

And I also like the fact that such experiments are carried out on megascience devices such as synchrotron sources.

- What are aptamers, why are they interesting, and what is their potential application?

- Aptamers are short DNA or RNA sequences which are artificially synthesized, and when folded into a three-dimensional structure, they exhibit specific properties: they can recognize certain proteins and bind to them, while not interacting with others.

In this regard, they are very promising, since they do not harm the body, do not lead to side effects, and can also be used for delivering drugs to a specific organ, tissue, a certain type of cells, or to bacteria or viruses.

Aptamers could replace antibodies, which are larger and may not be so specific as they recognize several proteins. Aptamers live in the body for no more than a day, performing their function, and then they are disassembled into their constituent parts by our own proteins. They can also be used to identify biomarkers of various diseases, up to cancerous tumors, visualize certain types of cells and tissues, block “harmful” molecules, and to deliver drugs to the desired place in an organism.

And they are also convenient because we can assemble various structures with aptamers and other active elements, for example, gold or magnetic nanoparticles, proteins, sugars, and other aptamers.

These constructs are called bionanoconjugates, since they are linked together by chemical bonds, contain biomolecules in their composition. Thus, conjugates are nanoscale structures which perform the functions we need.

In general, the development and use of aptamers is a step towards personalized medicine, taking into account individual characteristics of patients. But there is still a lot of work to be done in this direction.

This is what our laboratory of digital controlled drugs and theranostics of the Federal Research Center of KSC SB RAS is working on. Aptamers are digital controlled drugs. They are digital because their structure can be represented by a linear code, a sequence of letters-nucleotides: A, C, T, G, assembled in a certain order.

- In addition to biophysics, your area of interest includes observational astronomy and astrophysics. What, in your opinion, connects these disciplines and what is common between the world of astronomical bodies and the world of living organisms?

- Yes, I like these very different areas. In high school, I became interested in astronomy, which expanded my idea of the world and gave answers to some questions from my childhood, and also inspired love for physics and science in general as the most perfect way of the world cognition.

There are common features between the two areas. For example, all processes in the Universe are based on the same laws. We can study both the spectra of stars and the spectra of individual chemicals, and some atoms or molecules can be found both in the microcosm in the laboratory, and in a distant nebula thousands of light years away.

In general, the language of science connects everything that we study into a single picture of the world, which inspires new efforts in the endless search for knowledge.

- Can the fundamental discoveries of recent years in astrophysics completely change the scientific picture of the world? And by the way, are there equally fundamental discoveries in biology and biophysics?

- We can say that we are almost constantly on the verge of new discoveries, this is the Higgs boson, and the detection of gravitational waves, and the shadow of a black hole. I believe that this is a matter of time.

A hundred years ago, we did not even know about all this, but now, thanks to advances in technology, more accurate measurements and data, we can unequivocally state that both dark matter and dark energy exist and make up most of our Universe. This information is already included in modern school textbooks on astronomy.

Moreover, biology is now developing, perhaps even faster than astronomy. We can already read our genome (even checking a tick for encephalitis goes through reading genes), carefully edit it, we understand the epigenetic mechanisms, and understand many processes in the body.

In this processes, physics helps biologists. For example, with the help of ultra-powerful X-ray lasers, we can track the subtlest rearrangements in individual molecules, their interactions, even the jumps of individual electrons in molecules including tens of thousands of atoms!

Currently, cryoelectron microscopy has given a new breakthrough in structural studies. In 2017 it was awarded the Nobel Prize, and now it is already catching up with standard diffraction methods in terms of the annual number of new deciphered protein structures. Now more than ever, there is a tendency for science to push progress forward, and the progress pushes science to new discoveries.

- Could you tell us about the project “KrasAstro”. Are you really its creator? What is this project intended for?

- KrasAstro is our KrasAstro community of astronomy lovers, it was not created by me alone, there were four of us, astronomy enthusiasts who decided to use this name. Now, our community has grown to several dozen people and expanded its borders beyond Krasnoyarsk.

KrasAstro can be called a volunteer project, since we do all this for free, just to share this joy of observing the starry sky with other people.

We hold events in Sidewalk Astronomy: we put our telescopes in the streets of the city for everyone, for example, we often locate them on the Central Embankment or near the Medical University. We are writing about our events on the social network "VKontakte".

There we show the objects which can be seen in the city sky: the Moon, planets, some bright star clusters and nebulae, we tell passers-by about these objects, about the structure of the Universe in general.

These questions are of interest to many people. Therefore, we sometimes perform at various venues in the city, in schools, participate in science festivals and other similar events, and conduct classes for children.

I am interested in educational activities - the popularization of science, because I like what I do as a scientist, I like to share my impressions about some discoveries in other areas.

- What do you want to achieve as a scientist? And what have you already achieved?

- I have thoroughly mastered one and, less deeply, several measurement methods from the field of structural biophysics, allowing me to restore the spatial structures of DNA aptamers in solution, to study their properties, and the ability to bind to other molecules.

I have conducted a series of experiments on synchrotrons in Russia, France, Germany and Taiwan, gained experience in science field, as well as in terms of international cooperation. I have developed my own technique, which is now at the patenting stage.

Now I am simultaneously conducting several research projects under grants and in the context of the laboratory where I work. As a result, I have also expanded my knowledge in physics, biology, chemistry, biophysics and biochemistry.

What I want to achieve? I think it's better to talk about the results than about future plans.

Among the immediate goals, I can mention the defense of my candidate thesis. There are actually a lot of ideas and plans: these are new experiments, mastering new methods, deeper immersion in the theory of various processes and phenomena, development of projects in related fields, cooperation with laboratories and scientific groups from other cities and countries, development of our own approaches for research.

I would describe my desire as a scientist: to figure out how everything works, both in the microcosm and in the macrocosm.

Source: Our Krasnoyarsk Region